|Dr Pooram M Gaur is an expert on chickpea breeding and genetics with ICRISAT. He obtained his PhD in Crop Science from the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada. Dr Gaur developed the first linkage map of chickpea and published the first report on the conservation of gene sequences between genus Cicer and Pisum. He has identified several mutants varieties in chickpea and registered these as genetic stocks with National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), New Delhi. He has been with ICRISAT since 2001.
In this interview, Dr Gaur talks to GrowMorePulses' Matt McHugh about the changes in chickpea cultivation over the past two decades and what he expects in the future.
Could you begin by giving us some background on the state of chickpea in India?
Over the years, with the expansion of wheat cultivation in northern India — due to increased irrigation — pulse growing has been eclipsed. This is especially true for chickpea specifically, because it is grown in the post-rain season when wheat is grown, so it directly competes with wheat.
Wheat was needed for food security, so the government put a high emphasis on enhancing its cultivation, developing irrigation systems in Haryana, Punjab, etc. It promoted wheat and rice because they are staple foods and worked to enhance its production. Other crops, specifically pulses, were eclipsed. So wheat replaced chickpea in northern India.
In all, the area under pulses cultivation in the north has decreased from 5 million hectares to less than 1 million hectares, which it is currently. And that is the area scientists used to think was the most productive area for chickpea. But pulses cultivation — specifically chickpea – moved from north India to central India and south India. The area under chickpea cultivation in central India and south India was about 2.4 million hectares. Now it has increased to about 4.5 million hectares.
That has partly compensated for the decline in area in northern India, but there has still been a net reduction in the area under pulses in the country overall.
Chickpea in AP
Did South Indian cultivation increase because new varieties were developed that were shorter-season varieties?
Yes. The earlier varieties were all long-duration varieties, suited for long-duration environments — cool environments. Then short-duration varieties were developed that can be grown in warmer environments.
For instance, take what happened in Andhra Pradesh (AP), where there’s been an increase in chickpea cultivation, the likes of which hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world. Earlier, AP had about 50,000 hectares under chickpea, and productivity was hardly 300–400kg / ha. At present, it is 1.4 tonnes / ha (1400kg / ha) in AP as compared to the country average of 850kg / ha. And the area under chickpea cultivation has increased from 50,000 ha to 650,000 ha.
Earlier, people used to think, “chickpea is not a crop for this area, because there is no winter and chickpea can only be grown in the winter season”. But the new varieties that became available were very good short-duration varieties, high-temperature varieties, and were very well suited for AP. The second advantage chickpea had in AP was that farmers were growing crops that were labour intensive — cotton, chillies, the cash crops. But the input cost was very high, and the labour prices rose and availability fell. So AP farmers found chickpea to be a desirable alternative because the input cost is lower and net profitability was as high as that of other crops, maybe even higher.
Luckily, these farmers were progressive farmers. They took chickpea as a late commercial crop. And that’s the reason that the productivity of chickpea in AP, which was hardly 300–400kg / ha 15 years back, is now the highest in the country.
AP is now the only state in India in which 70–80 per cent of the area under chickpea is under improved varieties of chickpea. In all other areas, the seed replacement ratio is very low; farmers continue to grow the old varieties, and new varieties are adopted very slowly. But in AP, there’s one new variety that, in the last 3-4 years, farmers have spread to 50 per cent of the area.
Is that because of the potential in the variety or because of the adaptability of the farmers?
I would say both those things meshed in AP — a very good variety was available, and farmers were looking for options for commercial crops because of the high inputs costs of the traditional ones. And they all take good care of chickpea — their crops are as good as the crops here in the test fields. They’re very well maintained and have excellent populations, and the farmers control insect pests very well.
Which is the best variety released from ICRISAT in chickpea?
Presently, here in AP, it’s JG11. This variety was developed here. We work on development here, and then we distribute the breeding materials throughout the world, and other institutes test it. They found that it was good and gave it for testing to the All India Coordinated Pulses Improvement Project (AICPIP). The variety was found suitable for south India, so it was released for that area.
We develop breeding materials and forward the advanced line to breeders working in universities, who evaluate these breeding lines. If they find any promising lines, they can enter it in the national project — the AICPIP — as their entry. If, after three years of trials, the seeds are still promising, they’re released. So the universities basically own the varieties, but they acknowledge ICRISAT for supplying the advanced breeding materials. For example, we have two types of chickpea — desi and kabuli. Every year, I supply one trial for desi and one for kabuli, globally.
And that offer is open to the private sector also?
But it is the government agricultural universities who mainly take up the opportunity?
In India, the private sector hasn’t come forward for research; it’s mainly been the public sector (universities and institutes) — they are the ones who ask for these materials, and they are the ones who use them.
Market and scale
And why isn’t the private sector coming forward?
In legumes, the private sector is worried that, if they invest in research for developing varieties, the farmers will buy small quantity in the beginning and then produce their own seed from that, and they won’t return for more seed — they don't anticipate a continuous market for such seeds.
So private companies concentrate on hybrids. They do target some varieties in crops where the seed-replacement ratio is very high — where farmers do come forward to buy seeds, like in wheat. There they have made some investment, but they don’t invest much in pulses.
Is this a limiting factor in terms of increasing the pulses productivity in India?
It’s a big limiting factor as we don’t have this second channel that’s important for making quality seeds available. Pulse seeds are being produced only by the public sector, which isn’t enough to meet the requirement — we need the private sector to be involved. If they come forward, then the availability of quality seeds will increase.
Today, seed production is still under the control of university breeders — either they produce them at their farm or at other farms. Then foundation and certified seeds are with state seed corporations or national seed corporations.
Do you feel that though some good varieties are available, there is a limiting factor in terms of production and marketing of those varieties?
The varieties are available, but they’re not reaching the farmers. And in all our studies, we’ve found two factors that limit the spread of varieties: availability of information and availability of seed. Some farmers don't know about improved varieties, and some who do are not convinced they are superior to local varieties. And, even if they’re convinced, often the seed isn’t available. So we have to work to eliminate all of these hurdles to productivity.
Do you feel that these public sector organisations — SFCI (State Farms Corporation of India Limited) or state seed corporations — may not have the infrastructure for marketing?
Yes, there is a big gap. There’s where private companies are more successful in reaching the farmers, compared to the public sector; because of the reach of the private sector, they have different ways of associating and setting up networks. This is not available with public sector institutes.
In some cases, we see NGOs coming forward to enhance the production of seeds, linking with progressive farmers to produce seeds and making them available to other farmers.
You have to identify progressive farmers and encourage them to become seed growers. This informal seed system is another way of enhancing seed production. It empowers farmers by giving them know-how and quality seeds in the beginning. You teach them how to maintain purity, so they take good care of their crop — so they become seed growers and sometimes do marketing in their local area.
This works well, because other farmers can see that that farmer’s seeds are doing well, so they develop confidence in those seeds, and they also buy them.
So the concept is there, but scaling-up is required?
Yes. One limitation at institutes like ICRISAT is that we can only do models or pilot experiments, but not upscaling. We have a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that has two stages. The first is enhancing the awareness of farmers — where we have what we call farmers’ participatory variety selection trends. We take four or five varieties to farmers, and they see for themselves which are better. We involve them in ranking the varieties. This enhances awareness.
The next stage, once you’ve identified farmer-preferred varieties, is to make the seed available locally. For that, you encourage some progressive farmers to produce seeds. You provide them basic seeds and ask them to multiply that quantity.
In that area, we are working in two districts in AP and two districts in Karnataka.
The main thing is enhancing farmers’ awareness about new varieties. Also, we’ve noticed that when they grow the improved varieties, they more often follow better agronomic practices, which plays a big role in improving productivity. We calculated that you can get a 20–25 per cent gain simply by using better varieties. But if you want to double your production, or get 1.5 times the production, you have to use better practices.
One example of better practices is irrigation — if you can ensure one irrigation in chickpea, you can, in many cases, double your production. In chickpea, the number one constant hindrance to production is drought. Farmers are aware of this, but the water is not available. Optimal irrigation would be two times, or perhaps three in south India. This is much lower than the requirements for most crops.
But if you make water available for irrigation, the farmer switches to growing wheat. Wheat is a sure thing. Every farmer would prefer to grow wheat – for their own consumption and food security. There is no big problem of disease in wheat. It is an almost 100 per cent sure crop.
The problem with pulses is that kind of stability isn’t there. Farmers can lose 30–50 per cent of their crops to insect outbreaks. A few years back, there were a few days of frost, and a lot of farmers lost their pulses crops. Some wheat crops were affected, but not nearly as much as the pulses crops were.
One advantage pulses have over wheat, however, is that the input costs for growing wheat are higher. And, if pulses growers used better practices and better varieties, then the profitability could be as good with pulses as it is with wheat.
Would it help if farmers begin to focus on sprinkler irrigation or micro irrigation?
Yes. In Madhya Pradesh, irrigation is done mostly by sprinkler because they can't afford to do flood irrigation. And once some farmers learn how to use the technology and get confidence in it, the others follow. In this area, around Hyderabad, they use central irrigation. But with sprinkler irrigation, the water is used more efficiently and the overall water requirement is lower.
Most farmers prefer to use their own farm-raised seeds each season rather than store-bought seeds because they don’t perceive a loss in efficiency.
That's pretty much true at first. But, after a while, the genetic purity is lost, so we recommend that the farmers buy new seeds for varieties every three or four years. But if farmers are especially meticulous in following good practices, they can go ten or twelve years without buying new variety seeds and without harming their yields.
Is shortage of labour a problem in pulses cultivation?
Yes. Because of this, people want to use more and more mechanization. So now they need varieties that have been bred to be taller and grow upright so that a combine can be used to harvest them. Whereas in the West, this has been the case for a while now.
Can the farmers here grow those varieties from the West?
That is done to a large extent. But it just hasn't been addressed until now.
New areas of R&D
What areas of research and development is ICRISAT currently working on?
Here at ICRISAT, we have done a lot of work developing early chickpeas. That's what has brought revolution — those early varieties. We have also developed what we call super early varieties — they mature in about 75 days. (The “early” varieties take about 90 days to mature.)
The earlier the maturity, the lower the yield. These varieties are for specific uses, such as when a longer season isn't available. They're not for normal cultivation. In Punjab, they used this super early chickpea as a “catch crop,” planting it after harvesting rice, and harvesting it before planting wheat. So they are able to have three crops annually, instead of two.
We've also looked at heat-tolerant chickpea lines. Many farmers take a third crop of chickpea, which grows very late, so the end of the season occurs at a time when there are very high temperatures. In northern India, this occurs in March or even April. And, in some areas, the high temperatures begin in February. At that time, if your crop is flowering or podding, it is more sensitive to high temperatures. We have found very good variations. We have screened the germoplasm by growing late. We even planted here in summer to check that the chickpea can pod and give some yield under those conditions.
We were happy to see that there is good variation. This will provide flexibility on planting dates, which is very useful for planting pulses in rice fallows, where the crops are usually planted late.
How is this selective breeding achieved?
Once you identify the line as heat-tolerant, you use it in the breeding program, and by growing them in high temperatures, you select the best and thereby develop their heat tolerance.
We're also working on enhancing drought tolerance by improving the root system — deeper root systems usually yield a more drought-tolerant plant. We're using molecular breeding to do this. And we're working on improving resistance to pests — to pod borer in particular.
Work is also going on to develop the BT lines — transgenic chickpeas. We already made the first set of transgenic chickpea plants available for evaluation, though they didn't have a very high level of resistance. That happened three years ago. But we started again with new promoters, new genes — and this work is still going on. I estimate the testing will take three or four more years. It won't be released by us, at the earliest, until at least two or three more years have passed.
Hybrid technology in chickpea is ruled out because the seed volume required per hectare is simply too great. In large-seeded chickpeas, it is somewhere around 100kg / ha. In small-seeded chickpeas, it's about 60kg / ha — it's just too high a number. If you were to produce a hybrid chickpea, you could expect an advantage — an increase in yield — over varieties of between 25 and 30 per cent — at most, 40 per cent. But the seed volume required per hectare is so great that an advantage of even 40 per cent isn't commercially viable given the fact that hybrid seeds much be purchased every year.
But in the case of pigeonpea, for which a hybrid has been developed, the number is only around 10kg / ha.
Are there any other projects you're working on?
We've started projects on chickpea lines for spouts. People like mung bean sprouts, but people don't like the taste of chickpea sprouts as much. I realised that we needed to do something for that. I think one reason it isn't popular as a sprout is the large seed size. So, if you reduce the seed size — make it like mung bean — and also make it a little sweeter, then people will probably like it. So we started working on a small-seeded chickpea. And we've developed various small-seeded lines. We have one chickpea that is eight grams per one hundred seeds, whereas normal chickpea is thirty grams per one hundred seeds.
I've spoken with some companies about distributing them. They have agreed to stock it in their salad counters when it's ready. And if people like it, then fine. So we'll test the consumer acceptance that way. This is one way of enhancing consumption and use of chickpea.
Another big potential use of chickpea is in frozen chickpea, like in frozen peas.
Is there a role for private sector here?
I see a large role for them in this. Chickpea — green chickpea — could be sold, primarily in supermarkets. But, how do we do that? For peas, it is simple because there are very good shellers available. You use the shellers and you get very nice seeds. But, with chickpea, because of the hard pod coat, when you use those shellers, you don't get nice seeds. This is an area both industry and researchers would have to work on.
Researchers need to work to develop varieties that are a little bit easier to shell. And the people from the mechanics side have to come up with modifications. The Chinese have already developed shellers for pigeonpea. People like to eat chickpea seeds but nowadays, people don't have time to peel them. I've seen on the internet that they're already available in the US, though I don't know how they're producing them. But there is a huge potential here, on the scale of the market for green peas.
Since the benefits of your research are made public, what is the motivation for a private company to provide funding?
The private sector provides funding in the area of research on hybrids, which is ongoing in pearl millet, sorghum and pigeonpea. So the private companies become partners of the research consortium. This entitles them to the materials produced through the research and information regarding what is preferred in the market. So they're true research partners. It's not as if we're doing their work for them. They participate here in field days and exchange information. They work together with us. And the product is immediately made available to them. But it's not as if the product is not available to others — it is. The partners don't have the exclusive rights to it. But then they're not fully funding the project, either. And for the partial funding they give, they get access to the germoplasm and access to other information. There is a lot of savings over doing their own R&D.
But isn't a particular hybrid that comes out of ICRISAT's stable available to all?
No, here is the difference. This is a hybrid parent research consortium, so only the parental lines that are developed are made available. Hybrid technology is very different, because you have three parents involved, etc. The hybrids are developed by the companies themselves. So they try different combinations. And they have the exclusive rights to the results of their combinations. But the parental lines are available to all.
That is the reason that we aren't seeing too much involvement from the private sector. The interest from the private sector is usually from those entities who are interested in corporate-social responsibility — organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whom we are working with.
Pulses vs cereals
Why should people be encouraged to grow pulses (as opposed to wheat, rice, etc.)?
In South Asia in particular, pulses are an especially important source of protein because a large proportion of the population is vegetarian. Also, there is a certain demand, which is increasing — and if you don't produce them in the country, you will have to import.
Of course, there has to be a balance. Wheat and cereals are also necessary. You don't want to reduce the area of wheat to increase the area of pulses. So what you have to do is enhance productivity — that's the only option India has.
There is also an opportunity to increase the area under pulses — in rainfed rice fallows, farmers take only one crop of rice per year. Roughly ten million hectares of India's land area falls into this category — mainly in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa, and some parts of Madhya Pradesh. If even part of this area could be brought under cultivation for a second crop, it would be a significant increase in pulses production.
Why aren't the farmers doing this without external motivation?
Because they don't have the know-how to take a second crop. It requires a different agronomy. There is moisture loss. You need different implements and technology. You can't prepare the field and then grow another crop because you will lose moisture, and there is no irrigation. So just before the harvest, you have to plant the other crop. So, the agronomy is a little difficult, but there are projects going on where it is being demonstrated that it is possible to take a second crop that is a pulse crop — especially chickpea.
You also need crop rotation. If you continuously grow the same crop, soil fertility decreases. And it is very difficult to further enhance or even sustain the productivity of seeds. We're seeing this problem in Punjab, where they extensively cultivate wheat and rice. People are now realizing that they have reached a plateau, and it is not possible to further enhance the productivity of cereals in these areas.
There are also other soil-associated problems arising. But when you rotate cereal crops with legumes, you can get better yields. Pulses fix nitrogen and recycle nutrients with their deep taproot system. And they produce more organic matter. So they improve soil health.
Rotation is always good. In Australia, they have the target of having 25 per cent of the land area under pulses just for the sake of rotation. One solution is to grow pulses on 10 per cent of the land area, or grow wheat two years and pulses one year.
There's already been a lot of progress in enhancing the productivity of cereals. There's scope for a lot of enhancement in pulses productivity.
To some degree, it can be accomplished by changing the mindset of the farmer. As it is now, if a farmer has three hectares of good, irrigated land and two hectares of marginal land, he'll plant wheat on the good three hectares and plant some pulses on the marginal two hectares. That mindset is still there — that pulses crops require the least input and the least care.